This is Mohamed Sanu’s eighth season in the NFL and – prior to Sunday night – he’d never been featured in a game like he was against the Ravens.
In just his second game with the Patriots, Sanu played every offensive snap – all 67 of them – and was targeted with throws on 14 of those snaps. He caught 10 of them.
Never before had Sanu played every offensive snap in the NFL. His previous highs were 62 snaps in 2016 and 61 snaps in 2017 and 2018 when he was with the Falcons. The 14 targets and 10 receptions matched his career highs in both categories set when he was with the Bengals in 2014.
We knew Sanu was just what the doctors (in this case, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels) ordered when the trade was made and we detailed it the day it went down: he’d have on Julian Edelman’s workload, the way he’d change the color on Tom Brady’s mood ring, the red-zone potency (he caught a touchdown in the first half against Baltimore).
Truth be told, Sanu probably should have been here all along. He was a third-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Rutgers, selected at No. 83. The Patriots went into the 2012 season with newly-signed free agent Brandon Lloyd, aging Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman as their four wideouts. They had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as multi-dimensional tight ends so it wasn’t like they went into that season strapped for targets.
But Welker’s deal was going to be up at the end of the year, Edelman hadn’t yet made the strides he would, Branch was at the end and Lloyd was – despite all his skill – mercurial.
The Patriots took Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower with their first two picks in that draft. Home runs. Then they took Tavon Wilson with the 48th pick. Three-pitch K. Backwards K. At 90 – a few picks after Sanu went to the Bengals, the Patriots took defensive end Jake Bequette.
This isn’t 20/20 hindsight. This is what I wrote prior to that draft.
Ridiculously productive at Rutgers where he set Big East records for career receptions (210) and single-season receptions (115 in 2011). At 6-foot-2, 211 pounds, he's got good size and has shown adaptability in the passing game with the ability to run a lot of different routes well and be creative at setting up defenders. Enjoys the physical part of the game - blocking, working inside - and has multi-dimensional skills as both a return man on special teams and as a Wildcat quarterback.
This kid reeks to high heaven of David Givens-ness. Givens, a seventh-round pick from Notre Dame in 2002 who turned into a brilliant receiver over the next few seasons, was 6-1, 217 coming into the league with a 4.56 40-yard dash at the Combine. He had a great build and the potential to get better physically and mentally and he did once he got in the program. Sanu is a more finished version of Givens at 6-2, 211 and -- while his 4.66 time at the Combine concerned people -- he's said to be football fast and is such a technician he makes up for the heartbeat of speed he may be lacking in a straight-line sprint. The Patriots have four targets filling roles for Tom Brady. Wes Welker is the slot; Brandon Lloyd is the downfield X-receiver; Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the versatile tight ends running in the flats and down the seams, Deion Branch is working the sidelines. That would be the role for Sanu the same way it was for Givens. The deep out, the backline drag in the end zone - key spots for a smart, physical player like Sanu who can replace Branch. Plus, he returns punts. And he comes from the Belichick-approved Greg Schiano program at Rutgers.
The 23-year-old junior was seen as a borderline first-rounder until the NFL Combine. But the rise of some other wideouts with better measurables but far less production (Stephen Hill) may drive Sanu down the board. The later it goes, the more likely it is he joins the Patriots. Bill Belichick has said in the past that the second round is a place for gambles. Sanu isn't really that. He doesn't have a ridiculously high NFL ceiling. But the chance of him becoming a total bust is unlikely as well. If he's on the board at 62, the Patriots would be getting a steal.
And they would have. By the time the 2013 season began, Welker was a Bronco, Hernandez was in jail, and Lloyd was released and out of the NFL for the year. The Patriots signed Danny Amendola and got busy at wideout in drafting Aaron Dobson in the second round and Josh Boyce in the fourth.
Neither one of them ultimately worked out. Meanwhile, Sanu was settling in with the Bengals where he’d be a useful player for a mediocre team until hitting free agency in 2016.
The Patriots showed some interest in Sanu then but he was pursued harder by the Falcons. The Patriots brought aboard Chris Hogan and Nate Washington.
Big picture, what did the Patriots miss out on while Sanu was a Bengal from 2012 to 2015? They went to the AFC Championship each of those years, they won a Super Bowl in 2014, they’ve won two more since they didn’t grab him in free agency. Was Sanu the silver bullet that would have delivered a string of uninterrupted Lombardis?
Probably not. And it’s not worth kicking rocks about given the success of the franchise.
But it was a draft-day wideout miss (Aside: I could have been spoonfeeding these guys wideout picks – I was ALL OVER Tyler Lockett in 2015 and Sterling Shepard in 2016 as later-round picks who’d click).
Now that they have him, Brady is over the moon.
"He's done a great job," Brady told Scott Zolak for WBZ's "Patriots All-Access. "Any time someone's forced in, in a short period of time, it's really hard to learn an entire offense that most guys are starting in March and then installing and picking up these things ... It's hard to get someone up to speed in a very short period of time.
"He's someone that's done everything we could expect and more. Him having the targets the other night, making the plays, not only his hands, his run-after-the-catch, his toughness, we're definitely gonna have some fun working together the second half of the year as he gets more comfortable, confident in what we're doing and we gain more of a shared vision of how we see things. I think our chemistry is going to keep improving."
So maybe all’s well that ends well. With a defense like the one they have and – in Sanu – an asset that can make the offense more consistent and productive, the potential for 2019 ending well is high.
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